The Art Of Authentic Civic Engagement (long)

In civic engagement, public institutions and organizations invite community input into their deliberation processes expected to potentially impact the functioning and well-being of the community. Hosting leaders' motivations for civic engagement can be any one of many.

  • They have had good experiences of doing so in previous engagement contexts
  • They are mandated to do so by higher powers
  • They fear reprisals from the community if they don't
  • They are optimistic that experimenting with civic engagement will yield useful considerations for their decision making
  • They believe that creativity exists in the community that is vital to complex issues and opportunities 

Certainly not all civic engagement processes are designed for authentic engagement. When hosting leaders invite authentic engagement, they are intentionally transparent, genuinely interested in building positive connections within the community and clearly demonstrate community impact on the decision making process.

When hosting leaders are mandated to do civic engagement and lack the skill and/or will to invite authentic engagement, they are more simply interested in seeing the exercise as a way to create the appearances of listening while working to convert as many attendees to their conclusions.

The design of inauthentic civic engagement processes is simple and involves only a few key questions:

  • What will be presented on slide decks?
  • How will we maintain control of microphones and time so the fewest number of people speak?
  • What rebuttals to resistance will we have prepared?
  • How will we do any necessary post-event damage control?

Authentic civic engagement involves a completely different set of questions. Here are some examples.

  • Exactly which decisions are hosting leaders inviting the community to engage about?
  • How will the process represent authentic engagement in shaping decisions?
  • How will the natural influencers and connectors in the community be identified and engaged?
  • How will hosting leaders communicate the nature of scope of actual impacts of engagement on ultimate decisions going forward?
  • How will engagement events be structured for optimum community learning, dialogue and creativity?
  • What structures will we use to leverage as much input from and interaction among as many people as possible?
  • Are there important post-decision ways the community can add value to the ultimate and ongoing success of the effort?
  • What success indicators will hosting leaders use to assess the value of the effort?

The success indicators for inauthentic civic engagement are simple: the appearance of "enough" people attending and minimum negativity voiced from the community.

For success indicators in authentic civic engagement processes, here are just 7 of many possible.

  • The number and variety of community attendees in the process
  • The quantity and quality of participant inputs into the process
  • The participant before and after trust in the hosting institutions/organizations
  • The actual impact of community input on hosting leader learning and decision making
  • The ultimate impacts of decisions on the functioning and well-being of the community
  • The increase in connections within the community as a result of the process
  • The community perception that this is a strong, vibrant, flourishing community

Authentic civic engagement, even around the issues of great complexity and sensitivity, helps grow and strengthen communities in the power of the process and the effectiveness of its impacts. At the same time, hosting organizations and institutions deepen their capacity for empathy and creativity from their unique role in the life of the community.